ECO, Fellowship of Presbyterians, PC(USA)

The Fellowship Theology Draft

Yesterday I posted my response to the Fellowship of Presbyterians’ Polity Draft. This post will briefly summarize and respond to the companion Theology Draft released at the same time on the groups’ website.

The Theology Draft does three things: it addresses the question of a theological standard (namely, confessional statements) for the New Reformed Body, articulates some Essential Tenets, and then asks some critical questions about the theological practices that will shape the group’s life together. I don’t consider myself a participant in the Fellowship, but I’m taking them at their word that they want public input.

I’m most interested in the Essential Tenets. The current Book of Confessions of the PC (USA) is the proposed answer to the question about standards and statements, which is sure to please many and rankle others. The third section of the Theology Draft sketches out the “theological friendships” that the Fellowship hopes will become a normative part of the life of pastors and elders in their new denomination. But, to me, the Essential Tenets are what deserve the closest attention.

And not really the tenets themselves. I have plenty to say about them, but I think the most significant fact is that they’re offered at all and that they’re given such weight  in the Polity Draft. The Fellowship clearly expects adherence to these tenets to create a kind of theological cohesion that they are disappointed does not presently exist in the PC (USA). I have serious doubts about that expectation, both in its intent and likelihood.

As to their intent, the authors of the Theological Draft write in its foreward:

a collection of confessions lends itself to the wisdom of identifying what is essential within them. our theological ideas and inclinations as a church are far too diffuse to unite us. we reject the proposition that theology divides. instead, we affirm the proposition that truth tends toward unity, yet we are the first generation of presbyterian officers who do not have in the same ordination question the words truth and unity. identifying essentials necessarily and rightly focuses our theological conversation and our life together.

That “a collection of confessions lends itself to the wisdom of identifying what is essential within them” is a questionable assertion. The move to name essentials within the Reformed theological heritage strikes me less as an imperative driven by wisdom as one driven by efficiency. An agreed upon list of essentials is a useful rubric for determining membership in a body and for establishing the boundaries of its teaching. But I don’t think it follows that wisdom dictates such a move.

Wisdom compels people toward what is good, right, true, just, and honorable–not necessarily what is essential. There’s a lot in the Book of Confessions that is good, right, and true, and our life as confessional Christians ought largely to be taken up with mining that gold for Christian formation and mission. But the essentialist project wants instead to select a few confessional gems and convert them into plastic rulers for measuring fidelity to the covenant of church membership and ordination. To do so cheapens them.

Here, then, is my greatest objection to the Theology Draft: it’s inelegant. It’s a rude instrument for assessing (or even coercing) the “rightness” of faith. It’s full of the language of Reformed theological tradition (see the wordle below) and sentences like, “In his essence, God is infinite, eternal, immutable, impassible, and ineffable.” But it reads like an ordination exam. It reads like something written by someone who’s hand shakes as they write because their disapproving teacher is lurking behind them and peering over their shoulder.

This is how Essential Tenets must read, like traffic citations. And that’s why I don’t like them and don’t want them. But to those in the Fellowship who seek in them a ground of covenantal unity and who will press them into the service of concentrating a self-selected group of Christians into a theological corps bound together by its agreement in faith’s fundamentals essentials, may you find what you seek.

The Fellowship Theology Draft as a wordle

The entire Book of Confessions as a wordle

ECO, Fellowship of Presbyterians, PC(USA)

The Fellowship Polity Draft

The Fellowship of Presbyterians (about whom I’ve written here and here) released drafts yesterday of the polity and theology documents that will guide their January gathering in Orlando. This post will lift up the most prominent characteristics of the polity draft.

I tweeted my highlights of the document on my first read-thru, and you can see those quotes here.

Here’s what the document looks like as a wordle:

Clearly the local congregation is the most important entity in the polity that will shape the Fellowship’s New Reformed Body. Fellowship leaders have said as much, and they’ve been accused of being Congregationalist in their polity. They’re rebutted that claim. At the very least, it’s fair to say that this polity draft establishes that its most important function is to serve the mission and ministry of local congregations.

For comparison’s sake, here’s what the PC (USA)’s Form of Government looks like as a wordle:

Congregation is one of the most prominent polity element there too.

Some of the highlights of what congregations do in this polity:

  • receive, hold, encumber, manage, and hold property: 4.0101(a)
  • prepare required annual review and mission narrative documents for the presbytery: 3.0103(m)
  • request transfer or dismissal from their presbytery or from the New Reformed Body at a called congregational meeting: 1.0503(d)

The other big element in this polity is the presbytery. It defines a presbytery not as a “corporate expression of the church” as in the nFOG of the PC (USA), but as a “covenant community” of congregations. That may seem a pedantic distinction, but I think its significance lies in the fact that, as it does with members of congregations, the Fellowship polity makes voluntary participation in a covenant the substance of participation in a church body.

The presbytery also has a much more active role to play for the Fellowship in the coaching and encouraging of its pastors. The mechanism for this is a peer review process (2.0402) that must be completed at least annually by every installed pastor. The substance of the review is pastors’ health and  future ministry goals, as well as the sharing of best practices and insights.

The controversial stuff about church denominational affiliation pops up in the fifth chapter, titled “Ecumenicity And Union.” What’s described there is a process by which congregations or presbyteries may affiliate with the Fellowship’s New Reformed Body through a union arrangement or by joining a new entity called an Affinity Network. The process laid out requires a 2/3 majority vote of either the congregation or the presbytery respectively, as well as the consenting judgment of the PC(USA) body to which it is currently subject. And in the case where PC(USA) and Fellowship rules butt heads, “the less permissive rules shall govern”(5.0202 and 5.0203).

A few other interesting tidbits:

  1. There’s no General Assembly. The Synod is the highest council in the NRB
  2. Pastors “ordinarily” shall hold an MDiv. degree from an accredited seminary
  3. No CPM: presbyteries come up with their own credentialing and calling mechanism for pastors
  4. Members of congregations are called “Covenant Partners” (see note about presbytery membership above)
  5. Honorably Retired pastors can’t vote at presbytery

Finally, a word about the Essential Tenets. I’ll review those next, but they appear in the polity draft often and they clearly play a unifying role. The Fellowship clearly expects members of churches, congregations, elders, deacons, and pastors to adopt the Essential Tenets they’re laying out, and even to do so “without hesitation” (2.0103c). The lack of a uniform theological standard has been a constant critique of this group, and this polity draft clearly intends to establish the Essential Tenets document as the norm to which everyone must subscribe in order to belong.